Saturday, July 11, 2020

An Orc on the Wild Side - Tom Holt


   2019; 353 pages.  Book 5 (out of 5) in the “Doughnut” series.  New Author? : No.  Humorous Fantasy; Satire.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    He’s King Mordak.  Ruler of the goblins.  One all-around bad dude.  Successor to the Nameless One as the “Dark Lord” and the “Prince of Evil”.  But he’s much more than that.

    He’s a philosopher.  He’s developed and promoted “New Evil”, a radical new way of looking at, well, the fundamental relationship between Good and Evil.  Because is there really any reason for the cosmic yin/yang forces to be forever at war, continually depleting their ranks?  What, or better yet, whose, purpose does it serve?

    He’s a reformer, which is remarkable for a goblin.  He’s revamped the universal healthcare program.  One flat fee – threepence an hour plus you get to keep the cadaver.  And no more amputations for ingrown toenails.

    But now he’s got something new to ponder: the pros and cons of non-parthenogenetic reproduction.  It’s the goblin way; they are spawned, not born.  That means that, unlike any other species of beasties, there are no female goblins.  Maybe it’s about time they make one.  In the laboratory.  Because how he can guarantee gender equality in the goblin kingdom, if you have no females?

    Well, it doesn’t take a half-wit to see just how much can go wrong with that plan.  It’s almost as bad as discovering an egg whisk.

What’s To Like...
    An Orc on the Wild Side is the fifth installment in Tom Holt’s current “Doughnut” series, a fun and “spoofy” mash-up of quantum physics multiverses and fantasy classics.  The series’ title comes from the fact that you can bake yourself a doughnut, look through it into a parallel universe, and poof!, you get magically transported there.

    The storyline's structure is formulaic, and that's not a criticism.  Tom Holt throws in a whole bunch of plot threads (I counted at least nine of them here), most of which seemingly have nothing to do with any of the others, and we spend the rest of the book wondering how he’s going to tie them all together at the end.   He does it successfully every time, including here, and half the fun is watching how he does it.

    The other half of the fun is the Tom Holtian wit and spoofery.  We learn why egg whisk technology is so dangerous, struggle alongside Mordak to decipher a doom-and-gloom prophecy concerning the return of the Nameless One, and chortle at the pokes in gentle fun at Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, and even Brexit.  The enigmatic uncle/nephew duo of Herald and Art are back, the latter still in the process of redefining the term “omnivore”.  We begin to learn more about whom they ultimately work for at long last.

    There are no chapters in the book; instead it’s divided into five “parts”, each with a clever “orcish” title, such as “All Orc and No Prey”.  There are critters aplenty – goblins, dwarves, flying lizards (we’d call them dragons), wraiths, humans, an Evil Eye, Mr. Bullfrog (my favorite new character), and one not-to-be-messed-with she-goblin.   Curiously, there are no halflings, nor any orcs, although you could argue that the terms goblins and orcs are synonymous.

    The ending is typical Tom Holt, with the emphasis being on its clever resolution of the plot threads and Mordak’s question: why shouldn’t the Elves, Dwarves and Goblin engage in at least some degree of dialogue and cooperation?  Good triumphs, or at least “New Evil” does, despite some of the baddies living to incite another day.

    An Orc on the Wild Side is both a standalone story and part of a series.  It is set entirely in the fantasy-imbued parallel world called the “Hidden Realms”.  It was written in English, not American, so you might be sceptical about tyres and cissy about artefacts and  grotty centrefolds. There aren’t a lot of characters to keep track of, although you’re not always sure about who they actually are.

Excerpts...
    “Ms. White.”
    “Yes?”
    “I don’t think I quite caught your first name.”
    “Um.”
    “Excuse me?”
    She flushed slightly.  “It’s Snow.”
    “Snow White?”
    “Yup.”
    “That’s an unusual-“
    She looked at him.  “It’s short,” she said, for ‘S-no-business-of-yours-what-my-first-name-is.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have sausages to fry.”  (pg. 32)

    “So where does it say in the Act about killing three thousand goblins?”
    The Minister stabbed at a paragraph with his claw.  “There, look.  Paragraph six.”
    “What?  But that’s just-“
    “The living wage,” the Minister said.  “Well, this lot doesn’t comply.”
    “They don’t?”
    The Minister shook his head.  “The living wage is three Iron Pence a day, right?  Well, the lot doesn’t earn that much.”
    “So?”
    “So they can’t go on living, can they?”  (pg. 253)

“Truly is it said, go not to the Elves for answers, since they’re about as much use as a custard wall.”  (pg. 297)
    There’s not a lot of cussing – probably a bit less than a dozen instances.  I think I caught a plot hole (on page 72) unless the pair of human couples were engaged in a bit of wife-swapping, and that’s highly unlikely.  Plus one  typo (thing/things) a few pages later.

    There are a couple negative reviews at Amazon and Goodreads, mostly from people upset that Tom Holt would dare to poke fun at something as sacrosanct as LOTR.  Personally I think that most authors would love to be famous and successful enough to where their works and worlds are being parodied.

    8 Stars.  I’ve enjoyed all the books so far in this series, and An Orc on the Wild Side can be added to that list.  There’s no mention of a sequel over at Wikipedia, and my biggest worry is that Tom Holt will someday soon call it a career and hang up his pen.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Great Wall - Julia Lovell


   2006; 351 pages.  Full Title: The Great Wall – China Against the World 1000 BC – AD 2000.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : History; China; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    The thing about the Great Wall of China is, it’s so positively great.  That’s why the Chinese call it that.

    I still remember the iconic picture of it, when President Nixon was visiting for a photo op back in 1972.  The wall looked like something you’d see on a medieval castle.  And to think it was actually built 2,000 years ago!

    I can’t imagine how much labor went into the construction – making a single wall stretching all across northern China.  Still, it was a good investment.  It was made to keep the barbarians out, and with the exception of Genghis Khan, it worked pretty well.

    And it’s huge!  Did you know it’s the only man made object on Earth that can be seen from the moon?  Neil Armstrong is on record as having spotted it while he was traipsing around up there.

    Sadly, most if not all of the above is inaccurate, being hyperbole written mostly by Western visitors to impress their countrymen back home and, in a lot of cases, with the idea of spurring trade between China and Europe.  We’ll list the correct facts at the end of this review.

What’s To Like...
    The Great Wall is a clever undertaking by Julia Lovell to tell the history of China by juxtaposing something the Chinese have been doing for several millennia – building walls.  Trying to squeeze 3,000 years of events into 351 pages of text (plus another 50 pages of Appendices, Notes, a Bibliography, and an Index) is essentially an impossible task, particularly when presenting it to people whose knowledge of Chinese history is limited to Confucius, the Mongols, and Mao Zedong (the author’s spelling).  Surprisingly, Julia Lovell succeeds admirably.

    The book is divided into 12 chapters, plus an Introduction and a Conclusion, and is presented in more or less chronological order.  Wherever an opportunity arises, wall-building is spotlighted, even when the walls were obsolete, and even when the "walls" refer to internet firewalls and those around shopping malls.  The maps, notes, and pictures all work smoothly, and I liked the use of pinyin (minus the tonal marks, but that’s not a complaint) and lots of examples of classical Chinese poetry.

    Unlike several reviewers, I thought Julia Lovell had a very balanced view of the various factions.  She gives a “warts and all” view of the various Chinese dynasties, the various nomadic tribes to the north, and the various more-recent European powers wielding their gunboat diplomacy.  The life of Sun Yat-sen gets fleshed out here, and there’s lots of interesting trivia, such as Mao Zedong being an enthusiastic but amateur versifier.

    My favorite Chinese poet Li Po gets some ink (although his name is rendered “Li Bo” here), even if he’s portrayed as a “drunken, duelling, romantic wanderer who is said to have drowned after leaping, drunk, into a river to embrace the reflection of the moon.”  Maodun was new to me – I wouldn’t want to mess with him even if I was his father.  I enjoyed meeting the early Turks, who were a major adversary of Chinese expansionism way back in the 6th century AD, and I was startled to learn that it was a Tibetan tribe that destroyed the Yan dynasty.  I liked that oracle bones were used for divination for centuries, and that chess was being played in China as early as the 12th century AD.

    Since I took two years of Mandarin a few years back, I already knew that there are a bunch of dialects spoken throughout China (including Cantonese in the south), but that since they all use the same script, everyone in China can understand any and all written communication by their countrymen.  The southern city of Hangzhou get brief mention; it brought back memories from a business trip I took there 15 years ago.  The eight-year-long imperial debate about which of the five “cosmic elements” would be used by the Jin Dynasty made me chuckle.  An executive committee where I used to work once took eight months and many meetings to discuss what the company colors would be.  Dilbert would have sighed.

    The Great Wall is written in English, not American, but I didn’t find that distracting.  Stylistically, I’d label it a “scholarly” presentation, almost a polar opposite of the way Sarah Vowell or Mary Roach writes, and very effective here.

Kewlest New Word ...
Corvée (adj.) : referring to unpaid labor (as towards constructing roads) due from a feudal vassal to his lord.
Others: panegyrics (n.); enfeoff (v.); havering (v.); poetaster (n.).

Excerpts...
    [Erzhu Rong] crossed the Yellow River, settled on a hillside outside Luoyang and invited the capital’s aristocracy for a meeting at his campsite.  From there, after gracelessly massacring every single member – perhaps as many as 3,000 – of this state welcoming party, and drowning the dowager empress and her child-emperor in the Yellow River, he rode into Luoyang and set about enjoying court life, until he was himself stabbed to death in 530 by the new puppet emperor he had installed.  Following a plucky but doomed attempt to defend the city, the emperor was himself garroted by the murdered leader’s successors, shortly after praying to the Buddha not to let him be reborn as a king.  (loc. 1995)

    By his death in 1688 – at which point he was fluent in six languages, including Chinese and Manchu – Verbiest had laboured for almost two decades on behalf of the imperial court.  He had drawn up calendars, built huge and elaborate astronomical instruments, as well as an observatory in which to use them, and overseen the forging of 132 large cannons (on which he eccentrically inscribed the names of male and female Chinese saints), subsequently used to arm China’s city walls.  (…)
    Perhaps his most innovative moment was an early attempt at an automobile, in which he strapped a boiler on to an oven, attached a paddle wheel, gears and wheels, and steam-motored around the corridors of the Forbidden City for an hour or so.  (loc. 4286)

“Who scruples much achieves little.” (Fei Yi)  (loc. 814 )
    It’s hard to find anything to nitpick about in The Great Wall.  There were some “gaps” in the history, such as the history of the southern parts of China, the historic relation between Tibet and China, the fall of the last dynasty (Qing) in 1911, and Mao ousting Chiang Kai-shek in 1949.  But there’s only so much you can cover in 351 pages, and I doubt any of these topics could be tied in to the “wall-building” motif.

    The book was a slow read for me, but I think that’s because I was so unfamiliar with all those emperors, warlords, dynasties, and barbarian leaders.  If there was an underlying theme, it was that there is always an inherent and eternal tension when any agrarian-based “civilized” society abuts a roving hunter-gatherer one.  Or, as the book puts it, “the Chinese viewed the northern tribes as raiding barbarians, while the nomads viewed the Chinese as raiding targets.”

    8 Stars.  Some truths about the Great Wall, courtesy of Julia Lovell’s book.  The “castle-looking” part of it you see in all the photographs is just north of Beijing.  It looks “medieval” because that portion was built relatively recently, about 500 years ago, not 2000.  It’s still impressive though.

    Other sections of the wall are much older, not connected to the picturesque portion, and much more primitive in construction.  It’s only recently that the Chinese started calling it “the Great Wall”, mostly for tourism purposes.  Historically, they called it many things, including “the Long Wall”.

    The wall’s purpose is more offensive than defensive.  It kinda says “this is a boundary to our land”, just like Israel’s Palestinian wall, the Berlin wall, and Trump’s Mexico wall.  Yes, it says “keep out” as well, but as Genghis Khan apocryphally said, “the strength of walls depends on the courage of those who guard them.”

    You cannot see the Great Wall from the moon.  Yes, Neil Armstrong thought he did, but it turns out he was actually observing a cloud formation.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Fuzzy Nation - John Scalzi


   2011; 301 pages.  New Author? : No.  Science Fiction - Colonization; Hard Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    This just might be the most lucrative day in Jack Holloway’s life.  And that’s saying something since he used to be a lawyer, and even now he’s a licensed contractor for ZaraCorp, hired to do prospecting and surveying on Zara XXIII, a remote and undeveloped planet some 178 light-years from Earth.

    Jack’s about to set off four high-explosive charges in a nearby cliff that might, per his surveying experience, contain a vein of highly-prized sunstones.  If this proves out, Jack’s entitled to 0.25% of the profits garnered from ZaraCorp mining them, which may sound miniscule, but it’s not.

    Alas, Jack does not always play by the rules.  He’s about to let his dog, Carl, do the actual detonating, and ZaraCorp, always sensitive to its safety record, has rules against that.  ZaraCorp is also extremely sensitive to any actions undertaken on its behalf that might be construed as deliberately damaging of the native ecology on these far-flung planets.  Jack can be summarily fired for any violations of these policies.

    But hey, Jack and Carl know what they’re doing (well, Jack does anyway.  Carl just does it for the doggy treat reward), and if everything goes right, four small rips will appear in the wall of the cliff, just large enough for Jack to see if any sunstones are buried within.

    What’s the worst that could possibly happen?

What’s To Like...
    Fuzzy Nation is a “reimagining” (so sez John Scalzi) or a “reboot” (so sez Wikipedia) of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 classic Little Fuzzy, which I read way back in 2011 and is reviewed here.  So it’s a retelling, and not a sequel, of the original tale.  The protagonist, Jack Holloway, is the same, as are a couple of the Fuzzys, but all the other characters are new.  Similarly, the general storyline is also retained, but all the details thereof are new and technologically up-to-date.  The Fuzzys now like to watch Ewoks drop rocks on Stormtrooper heads in old Star Wars episodes, and Holloway likes to listen to audiobooks when he’s traveling.

    The central theme is: what qualities must a species have to be labeled sentient?  To put it a bit more crudely, when we land on a new planet and encounter living creatures, how do we determine whether to communicate with them or eat them?  There are lots of possible factors, but the one that everyone agrees on is: the species must be capable of speech.

    As usual, the dialogue has lots of John Scalzi wit in it, the pacing is brisk, and the characters are all "gray", which I always like.  Our protagonist, Jack Holloway, is a bit of a butthead, and both the good guys and bad ones are interesting to tag along with.  The settings are limited: a couple places on Zara XXIII, and that’s it.  Ditto for the critters: the only ones we meet are humans, Fuzzys, zararaptors, and nimbus floaters.   

    The main storyline revolves around trying to determine if the Fuzzys are sentient, but there are several secondary plot threads, such as whether Jack and his ex-girlfriend Isabel will get back together, whether Jack and ZaraCorp will get rich, and what will happen to the Fuzzys afterward, no matter how their sentience hearing turns out.

    The ending is adequate – you sorta know what the trial decision will be, but the fun is figuring out what kind of evidence will be presented.  The judge who presides over the hearing is one of my favorite characters, she's always in control of things but sometimes just barely.  There are a couple of neat plot twists, but they occur mostly in the secondary plot threads, and in the epilogue.

Excerpts...
    When one lands on the jungle floor with a skimmer, via crash or otherwise, it makes a terrific racket.  Most of the nearby creatures, evolutionarily designed to equate loud noise with predatory action and other dangers, will bolt to get out of the way.  But eventually they come back.  The ones that are actual predators come back sooner, intuiting in their predatory way that a big loud noise might, when finished, result in some small helpless creature being wounded or slowed down enough for it to be picked off without too much struggle.
    What this meant for Holloway was that he likely had two minutes, give or take ninety seconds, to set up the emergency perimeter fence.  After that, something large and hungry would definitely be on its way to see what might be for lunch.  (pg. 112)

    “What’s your general opinion of Mr. Holloway?” Meyer asked.
    “Am I allowed to use profanity?” Bourne asked.
    “No,” Soltan said.
    “Then it’s best to say that our relationship has been a tense one,” Bourne said.
    “Any particular reason?” Meyer asked.
    “How much time do you have?” Bourne said.
    “Just hit the highlights,” Meyer said.
    “He’s lax with CEPA and ZaraCorp regulations, he’s argumentative, he tries to lawyer everything, he ignores me when I tell him he can’t do things, and he’s just all-around a jerk,” Bourne said, looking at Holloway.
    “Any positive qualities?” Meyer asked, slightly bemused.
    “I like his dog.”  (pg. 244)

“Squids don’t make sandwiches.”  (pg. 104 )
    I had a couple of quibbles, most of them minor.  There’s a bunch of cussing in the book (I counted 13 instances in the first 50 pages), but it needs to be said that the target audience here are adult readers, not the YA audience H. Beam Piper wrote for. 

    The storyline mentions two other sentient races that we Earthlings had already encountered in our stellar travels: the Urai and the Negad, and what the factors were that made us conclude they were sentient.  It would’ve been neat to work them into the storyline somehow, but alas, that doesn't happen.  I think this is Piper’s fault more than Scalzi’s though.

    Finally, because this is a reimagining/reboot, if you’ve read Little Fuzzy, you kinda know how the storyline is going to unfold.  In the Author’s Note, at the book’s beginning, John Scalzi gives H. Beam Piper’s version due praise (Fuzzy Nation was authorized by the H. Beam Piper estate), but this is one of those rare situations where it’s probably best to either one, but not both.

    Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Scalzi's reboot, although that was perhaps helped by the fact that it’s been nine years since I read H. Beam Piper's version.  One tends to forget a lot of the details in any book after that amount of time.

    8 StarsFuzzy Nation might be a bit redundant, but it’s still an entertaining read due to John Scalzi’s writing skills.  Add 1 Star if you’ve never read Little Fuzzy, you're going to really enjoy this book.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Up The Down Staircase - Bel Kaufman


   1965; 370 pages.   New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Humor; Schools & Teaching; Epistolary Literature.  Laurels : 64 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Today’s the big day!  Sylvia Barrett starts her new job in her new career!

    Okay, so it’s as a substitute teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School, which is not the most prestigious educational institute in town.  That would be Willowdale Academy.  But hey, this is Sylvia’s chance to get her foot in the door, and maybe that will eventually lead to an opportunity to teach at Willowdale.

    It's an exciting moment for Sylvia.  She will be teaching several classes of English and shepherding a homeroom class.  She dearly wants to make an impact on the teenage lives in both of those situations.  She can hardly wait to see their faces light up when they’re introduced to Shakespeare's plays or Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”.

    Best yet, she’ll have the other teachers, the principal, and the school’s entire key support staff to assist her in this new chapter of her life.  It all starts now, the first day of the fall semester.  I wonder what the class’s first words will be?

    “Hi, teach!”
    “Looka her!  She’s a teacher?”
    “Who she?”

What’s To Like...
    Up The Down Staircase came out in 1965, and was a “wildest-dreams-come-true” experience for Bel Kaufman.  She was 50+ years old, this was her debut novel (originally written as a short story), and it became an instant and long-lasting New York Times bestseller.

    The story is written in epistolary format – the text consists of various written communications such as official memos from the school’s administration to teachers, unofficial memos between Sylvia and fellow teachers, student homework essays on English Lit books, notes from students put in the suggestion box Sylvia installs, and snippets of dialogue between her and her students, primarily those in her homeroom class.  I like this format, see here for another book I read in this style.

    The book is based on the author’s personal teaching career experiences, albeit fictionalized to increase the humor value.  The storyline highlights Sylvia’s attempts to connect with her students, most notably Joe Ferone and Eddie Williams, and with mixed results.  There is some mild romantic tension between Sylvia and an attractive-but-dorky fellow English teacher, a mysterious custodian who Sylvia never meets but for whom lots of students request passes to see, and a professional quandary when she contemplates applying for a position at the more upscale Willowdale Academy next semester.

    I liked the character developments of both the students and the adults.  The students include a class comedian (hey, that was me!), an apple-polisher, an overweight girl jealous of Sylvia’s looks, a woman-hater, a girl with a hormonal overdrive, a lone and bitter black student, and a Puerto Rican student searching for his identity.  The school officials include an older, wiser, and trusted confidante, an idealistic but utterly clueless principal, his polar-opposite assistant (aware, but cynical), and a number of fellow teachers, embittered by experiences with “the system”.

    The book brought back memories of high school days.  We too had a mandatory Shakespeare play to read each year, and my teachers presented it with an equal lack of enthusiasm.  Sylvia’s students get assigned 100-word essays, mine were 200-worders, including one memorably called “The Mining Industry in Siberia” that was assigned to me as punishment for some class shenanigan.  OTOH, when Sylvia’s explains the meaning of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” I was thoroughly thrilled; I hated it and had zero comprehension of it when we read it in high school English.

    For me the most entertaining parts were the replies put in Sylvia's suggestion box by the students, often anonymously, and their mini-essays for homework assignments such as “What I Got Out of English Class so far”.  But be forewarned, if you’re a grammar nazi, you’ll grit your teeth at the spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.  There’s also some more-serious insight into topics such as racial integration and the uneasy trust issues between students and school officials.

    The ending was kind of a “lump-in-the-throat” thing for me.  It’s not particularly surprising, but makes up for that by being heartwarming, which I think is apt for this type of story.  Lots of issues remain unresolved, but that too is okay – major personal and cultural issues are rarely solved in a single semester.  Timewise, the story covers only the fall term, and it screams for a sequel to cover the spring semester, but alas, this is a one-and-done novel.

Excerpts...
    “Keep on file in numerical order” means throw in wastebasket.  You’ll soon learn the language.  “Let it be a challenge to you” means you’re stuck with it; “interpersonal relationships” is a fight between kids; “ancillary civic agencies for supportive discipline” means call the cops; “Language Arts Dept.” is the English office; “literature based on child’s reading level and experiential background” means that’s all they’ve got in the Book Room; “non-academic-minded” is a delinquent; and “It has come to my attention” means you’re in trouble.  (loc. 600, and is a decoding of key phrases in "Intraschool Communications" that Sylvia is struggling to comprehend.)

    Correct the following for Fri.
1. Rowing on the lake the moon was romantic.
    Correction – While rowing on the lake the moon was romantic?
    Or – Rowing on the lake, the moon was romantic?
2. Looking out of the window was a tree.
    Correction – Looking out of the window a tree appeared in view.
3. I found a pencil loitering in the hall.
    Correction – A pencil loitering in the hall was found by me.  (loc. 3247; homework notes jotted down by a student)

Kindle Details…
    Up The Down Staircase goes for $5.99 at Amazon.  Bel Kaufman subsequently published three more books: a romance, a collection of her essays, and an anthology of short stories by her.  None of these are presently available at Amazon in e-book format.

What do I do about a kid who calls me “Hi, teach?”  (…)  Why not answer Hi, pupe?  (loc. 592)
    The quibbles are minor.  There’s a bunch of acronyms – SS, PPP, PRC, CC, etc. – repeatedly used in the school memos.  Bel Kaufman tells you what they mean the first time, then expects you (and Sylvia) to remember what they stand for thereafter.  Keep notes.

    Some reviewers were critical of the shallow way the integration issue was handled, but Up The Down Staircase is meant to be a lighthearted tale, and frankly, in my high school in 1964 there was no sense of activism about it.  I’m actually pleasantly surprised Bel Kaufman gave it some ink in the book.  Ditto for the use of the word “Negro”, which is obsolete nowadays, but was politically correct back then.

    There is a smattering of cussing, including the F-word (once spelled correctly, once not), which IMO is realistic for high school student dialogue.  In the book's Foreword, Bel Kaufman discusses the efforts by the publisher to get her to "soften" the words used in these instances, which ones she acquiesced to, and which ones she didn't.  That section is somewhat lengthy, but gives some keen insight into pressures that publishing houses can put on fledgling authors.

    8 StarsUp The Down Staircase is a fast, easy read; ideal if you have a book review due tomorrow and you haven’t even started reading anything.  It took the reading world by storm in 1965, and was made into a hit movie a couple years later.  Bel Kaufman lived to the ripe old age of 103, born in 1911, died in 2014.  Amazingly, her (second) husband, five years her junior, was still alive when she passed away.  It would be great to have their combined longevity genes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Queen of Bedlam - Robert McCammon


   2007; 645 pages.  Book 2 (out of 7) in the “Matthew Corbett” series.  New Author? : No.  Genres : Historical Fiction; Murder Mystery; Intrigue.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    New York, in the year 1700.  We can’t quite call it New York City yet, since the population hasn’t even hit 5,000.  But it’s growing rapidly, and who knows, it might eventually grow to be as big as Boston or Philadelphia.

There are boatloads (literally) of new colonists coming to New York from England.  But there are also lots of Dutch colonists left over from when the town belonged to Holland, who called it New Amsterdam.  England took it over less than forty years ago.

    Matthew Corbett has been here for about three years now, having come up from the Carolina colony at the conclusion of his adventure down there, chronicled in Speaks The Nightbird and reviewed here and here.  He’s still a clerk, but now he works for the Magistrate Powers.  But his first love is solving mysteries and he's jokingly invented a new word to describe someone who goes about detecting clues to figure out who committed a crime: a “detective”.

    At present, he has a chance to put those “detecting skills” to good use, since someone recently slashed the throat of Dr. Godwin, a local physician.  Most likely it was some crazy person, since they also mutilated the doctor’s face.  It happened at night, out on a dark street, and if the madman has any sense (is that an oxymoron?), he’s probably skipped out to some other town.  Everybody in New York certainly hopes he has.

    But a respected merchant has just suffered the same fate, and when Matthew happens upon the scene right after the murder, it’s time once again for him to go detecting.

What’s To Like...
    The Queen of Bedlam is Book Two in this series, and like its predecessor, is equal parts Historical Fiction, Murder-Mystery, and Intrigue.  All three genres are masterfully done.  Most of the story takes place in New York and the surrounding countryside, but Matthew’s sleuthing will also take him on trips to Westerwicke, New Jersey and Philadelphia.  I found it fascinating to see how traveling on business trips was done back then.

    The character development – even secondary and bit-part ones – is exceptional.  Although for the most part you can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are, I liked that even Matthew has faults.  For instance, he's not nearly as good at tailing a suspect as he thinks he is.

    The depth of Robert McCammon’s research is revealed in the historical details, including visits to a brothel and a mental hospital.  I I enjoyed the glimpse of forensic science in 1700, and chuckled at Matthew’s “acid trip”, which could be described as both “very bad” or “very good”.  I’m always delighted when chess gets worked into a story, and was surprised that even a drag queen could make it into the tale.

    At one point Robert McCammon gives some literary nods to authors who apparently were popular in 1700, and I want to check them out to see if Amazon offers them as free e-books, since any copyrights have surely expired.  There’s also a bit of subtle humor sprinkled throughout the story, which gives some balance to the dark deeds going on.  For instance, we get a graphic illustration of a “bull in a china shop”, and Master Samuel Baiter makes a cameo appearance, when he's addressed by a slightly shorter version of his name.

    There are at least eight plot threads for Matthew (and the reader) to investigate.  1.) Who’s the Masker and why is he carving up people?  2.) Who killed an earlier victim?  3.) What’s troubling Reverend Wade?  4.) What’s the connection, if any, between the three (presumed) Masker victims?  5.) Who’s the Queen of Bedlam and what’s her story?  6.) How does Simon fit in?  7.) What’s the code in Ausley’s notebook mean?  8.) Who and where is Professor Fell?

    The ending is extended (a good fifty pages or more), exciting, packed with action, and suitably twisty.  I love it when not everything in the hero's plans goes smoothly.  The second-last chapter serves as an Epilogue to clear up a couple of the plot threads, and the final chapter serves as a teaser for the next book in the series.

    The Queen of Bedlam is a standalone novel, as well as part of a series.  I don’t think it’s necessary to read the books in order, although I’m doing so.

Excerpts...
    “What are they going to do to us?” (…)
    “They’re going to kill us,” he said.
    Berry stopped.  She stood gaping at him, her blue eyes scorching holes through his head, until Dahlgren gave her a shove that almost propelled her into Matthew. (…)
    “Kill us?” she gasped when she could speak.  “Kill us?  What have you got me into?”
    “An adventure,” he replied.  “I thought you liked those.”
    “I like adventures I can live through!”  (pg. 578)

    In this town of soon to be more than five thousand persons there was a governor who wore a dress, a reverend who loved a prostitute, a printmaster who could crack walnuts on his forehead, a high constable who had killed a boy, a magistrate who was once a tennis champion, a laundress who collected secrets, and a coroner who collected bones.  There was a barber who owned a squirrel named Sassafras, a tailor who could identify a dead man from a suit’s watch pocket, and a black giantess who would put aside her gittern just long enough to kill you.  (pg. 638)

Kewlest New Word ...
Bloatarian (n.) : someone who consumes significant amounts of brewed alcoholic beverages.
Others: Stoggered (adj.).  (both these words are borderline “made up” ones.)

“Spoken like someone who forgot to brush their brain this morning.”  (pg. 485 )
    It's hard to find anything to quibble about in The Queen of Bedlam.  There's a fair amount of cussing, but it fits the story’s dark tone and isn't excessive.  The subject of child molestation crops up, and there’s one instance of forced sex, wherein we learn the meaning of term “the nymph’s itch”.

    The titular Queen of Bedlam doesn’t enter the story until the halfway point; I suppose purists could cavil about that.  And for those who read Robert McCammon’s novels for their paranormal horror content, well, all we have here is a pig that can foretell disasters and a girl’s who is a bad luck magnet.

    Oh yeah, two birds and one farm animal die.

    9 Stars.  I found The Queen of Bedlam to be just as good as Speaks The Nightbird, and I quite liked that book.  I've yet to read any of Robert McCammon’s “horror” novels, and I’m quite curious to see whether he can do those with equal mastery.  But I’ve got three of the remaining five Matthew Corbett books on my Kindle, so I might just as easily concentrate on this series.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Defining Moments in (Black) History - Dick Gregory


   2017; 271 pages.  Full Title: Defining Moments in [Black] History – Reading Between the Lies.  New Author? : Yes.  Genres : Historical Essays; African-American History; Non-Fiction; Socio-Political Commentary.  Laurels: 2017 NAACP Image Award (winner); 2018 BCALA (Black Caucus of the American Library Association) Literary Award.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    America today is once again in a Black Lives Matter crisis, and while I am fully support the protesters and activists, I also have to admit that I know very little about their mindset.  It’s therefore a good time to read something/someone relevant to the movement, but who and what to choose?  Well, let’s use the “BOFFO” criteria.

    B.  Black.  It makes sense to select a black author, because they will inherently be more attuned to BLM than us white folks, just like you wouldn’t pick a male author to describe what labor pains feel like while giving birth.

    O.  Old.  It would be best if the author participated in the 1950’s/60’s Civil Rights protests, yet was also still around when the BLM demonstrations of this decade were going on.

    F. Famous.  Famous people rub elbows with other famous people, and it would be interesting to hear what black professional athletes, movie actors, and politicians think about the protests from someone who knows them personally.

    F. Funny.  Yes, Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter are serious topics, but a couple of witty anecdotes every once in a while would help lighten the mood.

    O. Outspoken. There’s no need to sugarcoat the subject.  The author should have a reputation of telling it like it is.

    That’s all fine and dandy, but who’s out there that fulfills all our BOFFO preferences?

    Well, Dick Gregory for one.

What’s To Like...
    The "meat" of Defining Moments in (Black) History consists of five essays written by Dick Gregory, plus a Frontspiece (worth reading), Foreword (skippable), Introduction (kind of a sixth essay), and Epilogue (the author’s closing thoughts).  A brief summary of the Essays:
    Introduction : Dick-ol-o-gy (3%)
        Getting used to the writing style; getting used to the comedic interludes.
    Essay 1 : Searching For Freedom  (11%)
        The early history of slavery in the US.
    Essay 2 : Solidarity  (22%)
        The Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s/60’s and the organizations formed to promote them.
    Essay 3 : The More Things Change, the More Thy Stay the Same  (41%)
        Politics and the passing of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
    Essay 4 : Making Something Out of Nothing  (59%)
        Notable black people in the Arts.
    Essay 5 : Running in Place, Embarrassing the Race  (85%)
        Notable black people in Sports.

    The essays are written in a “conversational” style, which took me a while to get used to.  I have a feeling someone taped Dick Gregory as he spoke, and then transcribed it.  The result is a lot of “As I said”, “Follow me now”, and “But, keep in mind, as I keep saying“ type of expressions, plus an occasional cussword.

    Dick Gregory does a lot of name-dropping along the way, but that’s okay.  It was enlightening to read his opinions about all sorts of famous folks, both historical and recent.  Rosa Parks, my personal hero, gets major ink, as do Muhammad Ali, Toni Morrison, Tiger Woods, Sidney Poitier, and Maya Angelou.  I had forgotten about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and it's embarrassing that I’d never heard of Mae Jemison.

    The discourse on “the difference between racism and white supremacy” was educational for me.  For lovers of trivia, it’s pointed out that November 11th is both Veteran’s Day and  Nat Turner’s Death Day.  I think I’ll start commemorating it for the latter event.  You’ll also learn things like why Louis Armstrong was nicknamed “Satchmo”.

    I was surprised to learn the Dick Gregory had a rather low opinion of both Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.  He views Bill Clinton in only a slightly better light, but really appreciated John Brown’s commitment to abolition.  The history of The Supremes was fascinating, and oddly enough, one of my favorite bands, The Doors, get a brief mention.

Excerpts...
    For those who haven’t been to jail but kind of wonder in the back of their minds what it was like in the civil rights days, let me explain it to you.  First day you get arrested, the food is horrible.  Second day, it’s miserable.  The third day, it doesn’t taste too bad.  The fourth day, you’re asking for the recipe.
    By the time I got down south to protest, blood was running in the streets.  (loc. 1274)

    Once you admit that there’s somebody in the universe other than you, white supremacy goes out the window, doesn’t it?  Organized religion as we know it goes out the window, doesn’t it?  My grandmother didn’t have space in her head to believe there could be a Baptist on Mars.  Worst of all, in the view of white supremacists, if we start to think we’re not alone in the universe, then white supremacy doesn’t mean a thing, because we would all become earthlings.  There wouldn’t be a Memphis or a Chicago or an America or a Russia or a China or an Africa – we would be Earth people.  This is what this thing is all about.  (loc. 3500)

“White is not a color; it’s an attitude.”  (loc. 678 )
    The book has some weaknesses.  For starters, the comedic interludes, while entertaining, were also distracting.  Yes, you can tell Dick Gregory’s spiel about the history of hurricanes is not to be taken seriously, but it wasn’t clear whether the Jocko Graves anecdote was fact or farce; ditto for the "turtle, butterfly, and dinosaur" object lesson.  A lot of the historical tie-ins – such as the role of the (black) Tuskegee airmen saving the day for the whole D-Day invasion – seemed overstated.

    Even worse were Dick Gregory's conspiracy theories.  Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed by the banks.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by someone other than James Earl Ray.  Otis Redding and Sam Cooke were both killed by the Jewish owners of record companies.  The King Kong movie was really a slander against the boxer Jack Johnson.  Tiger Woods was brought down by white supremacists.  And last and laughably least, Michael Jackson was killed by the government.  Using lasers.

    It was also sad to see the author struggling to defend some of his personal friends, such as Bill Cosby.  It’s noble to have a friend’s back, but the evidence against Cosby is overwhelming.  Dick Gregory can’t refute it, so he justifies it by saying lots of others in the movie industry were doing the same thing, and they weren’t punished.  Somehow, that sounds eerily similar to wing-nuts defending Trump's grabbing of female genitals.

    But overall, the pluses about Defining Moments In (Black) History outweigh the minuses.  It’s important to remember these are essays, not dissertations.  You’re getting Dick Gregory’s opinions about important steps in the road to black freedom, not a scholarly presentation of facts.  He’s trying to instill a sense of pride in black readers through telling them their history that was never taught to them and giving them lots of black role models,  He couldn't care less whether some of the details are debatable.

    When viewed in that light, the book is a powerful effort.  And it shouldn't be surprising at all that Dick Gregory gave the Black Lives Matter movement his wholehearted endorsement.

    7½ StarsDefining Moments In (Black) History was Dick Gregory’s seventeenth and final book.  He was born on October 12 (Columbus Day!) in 1932, and he passed away on August 19, 2017, less than a month before, on September 05, the hardcover version of the book was published.  RIP, sir!

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Janson Command - Paul Garrison


   2012; 436 pages.  Book  2 (out of 4) in the “Janson Directive” series.   New Author? : Yes.  Action-Adventure; Intrigue; Espionage.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Paul Janson just landed a job, and a well-paying one to boot.  The Houston-based American Synergy Corporation (“ASC”), the largest oil company in America, wants him to “retrieve” one of their trauma doctors, Terry Flannigan, and bring him home.

    This could be quite the challenge, since the doctor has been taken hostage by rebel forces on the Isle de Foree, a small island country off the west coast of Africa, close to Nigeria.  But Janson is a former black-ops agent, so he’s well-qualified for the task.  With some careful planning and a world-class sharpshooter for a partner, things should go swimmingly.

    And they do.  Oh, there were a couple of surprises, including a bunch of Russian tanks and a fighter jet of unknown origin, but a few hiccups along the way were to be expected.  The doctor is rescued and it’s time to take him back home.  

    Alas, that's when everything goes haywire.  Terry Flannigan insists he’s not an employee of ASC, never has been, is happy where he is as he nurses the rebel leader back to health, and frankly thinks Janson’s been sent here to kill him.

    And when the doctor slips away to parts unknown, Paul can feel his “retrieval fee” slipping away as well.

What’s To Like...
    The Janson Command is the second book in a 4-book series, that appear to be completed, since the fourth one was published in 2015.  Robert Ludlum penned the first book in the series, Paul Garrison wrote #2 and #3, and Douglas Corleone authored the last one.  This is the only book in the series I’ve read.

    The action starts immediately, the pacing is fast, and the only time things slow down a tad is when Paul Garrison wants to introduce some intrigue into the tale.  There are a bunch of settings, most of which are exotic: Nigeria, New York, Cartagena in Spain, Zurich, Baghdad, Sydney and Canberra in Australia, Corsica and Sardinia, and Singapore.  The last one resonated with me, as I spent 24 hours there on business one time, and Garrison’s portrayal of it felt very “real” to me.

    I liked the “Janson Rules” that he plays by, and expects anyone work for him to abide by as well: 1.) no torture, 2.) no civilian casualties, 3.) no killing anyone who doesn’t try to kill you.  Those are difficult rules to follow when you’re doing covert espionage missions, and Janson in particular is sorely tested by them.

    You’ll learn a little bit of French (the fictitious Isle de Foree appears to be a former French colony), including a French cussword or two; and a smidgen of Spanish as well.  On a more practical note, you’ll learn how to make a smoke bomb using only items that are available in a cruise line gift shop.  There are 44 chapters plus a prologue, and the book is divided into four parts, each one signaling the main plot thread is about to become deeper and twistier, which leaves both the reader and Janson wondering just what the heck is really going on.

    The ending is suitably exciting, although not particularly twisty.  Everything goes according to Janson’s well-contrived plans, and despite their numerical superiority, the bad guys seem to be outmatched.  Some of the secondary plot threads, such as who’s really behind all this, remain unresolved, presumably to be addressed in the next book.  Nonetheless, The Janson Command is a standalone novel, and I didn’t feel I was missing anything by having not read the first book.

Excerpts...
    “The downside I see to working with a woman is that in the clutch, when the lead is flying, it’s only natural that you’d be distracted, worried about her getting hurt.  Particularly if she’s your protégée.  Devoted followers have a habit of getting killed in our line of work.  I’ve lost them; so have you."
    “Jessica is predator, not prey.”  (pg. 40)

    “Isle de Foreens dislike Nigerians.  They accuse us of being overbearing.  It is relatively typical of small nations to dislike big nations.  As many nations hate America, so many hate Nigeria.”
    “To have Nigeria as a neighbor is to sleep with a hippopotamus.”
    “My nation and your island are separated by two hundred miles of open gulf.”
    “Hippos can swim.”  (pg. 310)

“What’s our Coast Guard doing six thousand miles from home?”  (pg. 78 )
    There’s not a lot to nitpick about in The Janson Command.  There’s a fair amount of cussing, but I didn’t feel it was overdone.  There’s one instance of sex, and one instance of sexual abuse; but both are handled deftly.  A bunch of acronyms crop up in the story, so you might want to keep notes about what things like SR, Cons Ops, ASC, GRA, and FFM stand for.

    Judging from the Amazon reviews, the biggest gripe seems to be the book cover itself.  Glance at the image above.  What jumps out at you?  Robert Ludlum and Jason Bourne, right?  Well, the first one didn’t write this book, and the second one doesn’t appear in it.

    Some readers apparently were duped and irked by this, but honestly a second glance should have told them who the actual author and protagonist were.  Further, it should be noted that utilizing a replacement when a well-known author of a series passes away is not an uncommon practice.  It’s been done for Tony Hillerman, Lawrence Sanders, and Robert Jordan, just to name a couple right off the top of my head.  Yes, it’s a marketing ploy, but I think it’s more savvy than misleading.

    In closing, I enjoyed The Janson Command, mostly from the aspect of being an “airport novel”.  Is it as good as the Bourne series?  No, but how many other action-adventure stories are, including ones penned by Ludlum himself?  I expected to be entertained from the first page to the last, and didn't care if the writing wasn't elegant and deep.  By those standards, The Janson Command measured up quite well.     

    7½ Stars.